January 11, 2012 14:08
Normal heart rhythm and sounds in a horse are difficult to define because of the fascinating array of strange sounds and rhythms which can be found in apparently healthy animals and which change with exercise. Also, even when sounds or rhythms do reflect heart problems, most horse owners will not notice signs, until there is an inability to perform work at a level previously achieved successfully, when the horse shows an unusual tendency to tire.
Owners of performance horses understand the economic impact of a horse that can no longer work, or in the worst-case scenario, where sudden loss becomes a serious issue. University of Guelph researcher Dr Physick-Sheard states, “After safety issues and welfare issues are discussed there is still a need to put an economic value on the horse, which is decided by the client”. One aspect of research Dr. Physick-Sheard and Dr. Kim McGurrin look at is atrial fibrillation, the most common clinically significant rhythm disturbance horses can have. An arrhythmia is technically defined as an abnormal heart rhythm, however, irregular heart rhythm is commonplace in horses and the endeavor to define normal, continues to be a complex and fascinating journey. A completely steady rhythm can be considered abnormal.
Before a diagnosis of heart problems can be made, Dr. Physick-Sheard explains, a logical process where the client is asked the history of the horse (breed, use, how long it has been in training) is followed before conducting a general physical examination. Future use would also be discussed before deciding on diagnostics. An Electrocardiogram may be the next step to determine the heart’s rhythm and possibly an ultrasound to look at how efficiently the muscle and valves work. They look for enlargement or abnormal structure in the heart and check for normal blood flow around the valves.
Dr. Physick-Sheard describes two types of rhythm disturbance that can be found:
1. Benign variations on normal (mostly involving the top part of the heart).
2. Ventricular rhythm disturbances, which can be serious and even life threatening.
When found, they look first for problems outside the heart, disturbances in homoeostasis, which involves keeping the environment around cells constant: dehydration, electrolyte and acid base imbalance. Under these circumstances secondary arrhythmias are often detected. Situations where the cardiac problem is primary are rare but sometimes serious.
McGurrin and Physick-Sheard have had enormous success treating arrhythmia with transvenous electrical cardioversion. The response rate has been 100%! Electrodes are placed into the heart to deliver an electric shock, while the horse is under anesthesia, to convert the rhythm to normal.
Dr. McGurrin and Dr. Physick-Sheard developed this technique before their first Standardbred track study, where they collected heart rhythm data during racing using an electrocardiogram. Dr. Physick-Sheard explains how the technology works, “The heart is a bag of muscle, a slave pump which does what the system tells it, contracting at a rate that reflects the body’s needs. The heart gives off an electrical signal when it contracts which reaches the skin and can be detected by the electrocardiogram (ECG). This is then used to monitor heart rhythm.”
Dr. Physick-Sheard has developed specialized equipment and software for the current intensive Thoroughbred study, which he is hoping will give more insights into causes of sudden death.
Research funding has been provided by Equine Guelph, Grayson Jockey Club Foundation and OMAFRA.
Story by: Jackie Bellamy
Web Link: http://www.equineguelph.ca/news/index.php?content=315
Links to the Utube Videos:
Report on Research: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXI3Q0pMl34&lr=1&feature=mhee
Help for Horse Owners:
January 6, 2012 10:37
An 11-year-old Arab mare defies the odds and survives more than 12 hours in surgery to remove one side of her jaw along with a grapefruit-sized, cancerous tumour.
When Dr. James Carmalt examined the grey Arabian mare named Noor for the first time at the WCVM’s Veterinary Medical Centre last fall, the first thing that surprised him about the horse was her body condition.
“You could tell that Mr. Abidi (her caregiver) had been working hard to ensure that she had the right type of feed available and had managed to keep her weight on,” explains Carmalt, an equine surgeon at the WCVM. “She looked like a relatively normal horse — other than having this huge growth on the side of her face.”
The grapefruit-sized growth, about 26 centimetres (cm) in width and 20 cm in height, had been developing on the back curve of the horse’s right jaw ever since an accident occurred when she was two or three years old. Earlier in 2010, Syed Abidi found the disfigured mare on a farm in B.C. while searching for a specialized bloodline of Arab breeding stock.
He knew time was running out for the tough little horse that had managed to adapt and survive for so many years: “I saw a horse that needed help and I went for it,” says Abidi.
With the owners’ consent, Abidi brought the horse to Dr. Ryan Shoemaker of Delaney Veterinary Services in Sherwood Park, Alta. But after the cancer diagnosis was confirmed, Shoemaker referred the case to Carmalt.
“I think Dr. Shoemaker knows that if I could concentrate on equine head and teeth cases for the rest of my career, I would be a very happy man,” jokes Carmalt. “But he also knows that we’ve got many willing hands to help with post-operative care — something that’s very difficult to manage in private practice.”
“She wanted to go for it”
After several phone and email discussions, Abidi and Noor met Carmalt for the first time in November 2010. For two days, Noor underwent a battery of tests at the WCVM: a physical examination, a full mouth oral examination, an endoscopy of her upper airway and both of her guttural pouches, and radiographs of her skull and chest.
“Everything culminated with the CT scans. That allowed us to do a 3-D reconstruction of the tumour and that’s when we found out how large and invasive it really was,” explains Carmalt, adding that the tests showed no metastasis in the horse’s lungs.
Then Noor went home for three weeks — giving Abidi time to consider the risks and expense of the experimental procedure. “We talked at length about the risks. We also made a lot of effort to discuss the potential endpoints beforehand because we all wanted to consider the horse’s welfare,” says Carmalt.
“If she reached endpoint X or she suddenly decided that she had enough, we agreed that I would be the ultimate decision maker about euthanasia.”
“Dr. Carmalt and I — we think alike. We’re cautiously optimistic. We understand the risks involved but we’re willing to continue moving forward,” adds Abidi. “More than a dozen times, I was told to just put her down because it was too risky and too much money. But Noor is a smart horse — she let me know that she wanted to go for it.”
In the meantime, Carmalt prepared for a surgery that, based on veterinary literature, had never been done before. Besides experimenting on equine cadavers, Carmalt consulted with colleagues in the U.S. “Almost universally, the answer was, ‘Good luck with that,’” says Carmalt, who found invaluable advice closer to home.
Dr. Kathleen Linn is one of the WCVM’s small animal surgical specialists and routinely removes parts of the jaw in dogs diagnosed with cancer. But the surgeons had to plan for a different scenario with Noor. Instead of performing most of the surgery inside the mouth (the practice used for canine patients), the surgical team — consisting of Carmalt, Linn and Drs. Imma Roquet and Holly Sparks — would need to do most of the procedure from the outside because of the tight space inside the horse’s mouth.
“Like digging out a fossil”
Once Noor was prepped for surgery, the team inserted a tube through a tracheotomy in her neck. As well, they isolated her carotid artery in case a large bleed occurred and they needed to block the artery — an emergency procedure that slows down blood loss and buys time for surgeons.
The team used that emergency option four times during Noor’s marathon surgery that lasted for more than 12 hours. The procedure began with a 30 cm incision just below the tempomandibular joint (TMJ), curving around the bottom of the jaw to the front. The surgeons dissected their way down to the bone, lifting the tenuous tissues and facial nerves up like a flap until they could see the bone.
“Then we made a horizontal cut just below the TMJ at the top and a vertical cut between the second and third cheek tooth and lifted out the jaw,” describes Carmalt. “And that left us with a massive hole.”
The actual removal of the jaw bone took less than 15 minutes. What took time was cutting through the complex web of blood vessels — a process that Carmalt compares to digging out a fossil with painstaking care. “With a tumour, there’s a massive amount of new blood vessels. We knew where the major blood vessels were but there were so many vessels involved in the tumour — it was a whole entity on its own.”
After removing Noor’s swollen lymph nodes and any cancerous tissue, the surgical team began the laborious process of closing the hole with five layers of tissue and skin. Two catheters were left in the hole: one suctioned fluid out of the closed area while the other was a “soaker” catheter that allowed clinicians to put painkilling drugs directly into the wound.
As expected, Noor was wobbly in the recovery room but showed no ill effects of being under general anesthesia for so long. Within six hours, her post-surgery care team was offering her a variety of feed to choose from.
Horizontal to vertical chewing
When surgeons remove one side of a dog’s jaw, the animal can still chew its food up and down on the opposite side of its mouth. “But horses chew their feed horizontally so they need both sides to chew,” explains Carmalt. “We had no idea what Noor was going to do, but in retrospect, I should have held more stock in my physical exam and the CT findings.”
What the CT scan had shown was that Noor’s cheek tooth angles were flat as opposed to 15 degrees — the normal angle found in horses. Carmalt and his team eventually realized that Noor had already adapted to her disability before the surgery, learning how to chew vertically.
Three days after the procedure, Noor was eating enough to maintain her body weight. The rest of her three-week stay went relatively smoothly — thanks to the hard work of veterinary students who cared for Noor around the clock.
Noor returned home to Alberta just before Christmas. Since then, her recovery has had its challenges especially because of the harsh winter conditions on the Prairies. Noor also had some trouble eating because of dental issues, requiring Abidi to try different feeding options for her.
But the fact that Noor is alive and now has the chance to live a relatively normal life is still a miracle to Abidi who credits Carmalt for taking the chance on Noor. While he acknowledges that it was costly to save Noor, Abidi points out that he also spent the money to give the WCVM surgical team a chance.
“Dr. Carmalt told me it was a great learning experience for everyone involved. And by talking about this surgery, maybe others will read about it and be more confident about taking on these kinds of challenging cases in the future.”
For veterinary students, Carmalt says Noor’s case emphasizes the importance of referring cases to teaching centres like the WCVM once they’re in practice. It has also led to some intensive discussions about medical ethics at the veterinary college.
“From an ethical standpoint, I think we were very close to the edge with this horse. And if she hadn’t recovered as quickly as she did, we may have wished we hadn’t done it,” admits Carmalt. “I think as long as you have the welfare of the horse absolutely paramount and you aren’t swayed by the financial and emotional investments of the client, then I think you can try. You just need to know when to stop.”
Besides Noor’s strong will to survive and adapt, the other factor in the mare’s favour was Abidi: “He had already put in a massive amount of work to care for Noor plus he was willing to invest thousands of dollars in her surgery. After all that, I knew he wasn’t going to back off on his care,” says Carmalt. “He was in it for the long haul.”
Reprinted with permission from Horse Health Lines, publication for the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Equine Health Research Fund. Visit www.ehrf.usask.ca to sign up for our e-newsletter.
November 12, 2011 08:23
by:Chelsey Carruthers, M.Sc., AAg
Regional Livestock Specialist, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture
It’s that time of year again when cows are coming in from pasture, and beef producers must begin the task of planning their winter feeding strategy. A great first step is to have forages tested by an accredited laboratory. A standard forage quality test provides the information necessary to decide whether the feed you have available will meet the requirements of the cow herd during the winter months. You can then decide when each feed can be used to best meet the cows’ requirements, and if supplementation of energy, protein, or minerals will be necessary.
Forage tests provide information on the moisture, energy, fiber, protein and mineral content of feeds. These may be reported on an “as is” or “as received” basis, or on a “dry matter” basis. Dry matter values are reported as if the feed contained no moisture, and this is important when comparing values between feeds that have different moisture contents. The values discussed in this article are reported on a dry matter basis.
Energy is reported in feed tests in a number of ways: total digestible nutrients (TDN), digestible energy, and relative feed value. TDN is the most common, and is expressed as a percentage. On average, mature beef cows require 55 per cent TDN in mid pregnancy, 60 per cent in late pregnancy, and 65 per cent after calving in order to maintain their body condition. Energy requirements will be higher during very cold weather, for cows that are underweight, and for young cows that are still growing. Average quality hay often contains 50 to 60 per cent TDN, while poor quality hay can be less than 45 per cent. Straw contains 35 to 40 per cent TDN. If cows are fed a diet containing only forage, that forage must meet their energy requirement. If not, feeds higher in energy (such as grain or pellets) can be added to the diet to provide the energy required.
The fiber content of feed is related to the amount of energy that is available to the cows. Fiber is expressed on forage test results as neutral detergent fiber (NDF). A higher number indicates more fiber in the feed. When NDF is higher than 60 per cent the feed will be very fibrous and bulky. Cows may have trouble physically consuming enough feed to meet their energy requirement.
Protein is measured as crude protein (CP). Cows require approximately 7 per cent CP in mid-pregnancy, 9 per cent in late pregnancy, and 11 per cent after calving. Forages will vary greatly in protein content, but in general, legume hay such as alfalfa or clover will be higher protein than grass hay, and cereal green feeds will be lower in protein than hay. Grains are also relatively low in protein. Protein is often supplemented in the form of pellets or lick tanks, which can be used to increase the protein content of the total diet. It is important to keep in mind that protein supplements will not compensate for forage that does not contain sufficient energy.
Most feed tests also report the mineral content of the forage. Calcium and phosphorus are the most important minerals to consider. The complete diet should contain at least 0.25 per cent calcium and 0.17 per cent phosphorus. More importantly, the diet should contain at least 1.5
times more calcium than phosphorus. Minerals often need to be supplemented using one of the many products available. Speaking with a nutritionist can solve the mystery of which mineral supplement to use with your forages.
As with many things, the first step to planning a winter feeding program is to know what you have to work with. Forage testing is a valuable tool for determining the most effective way to use your feed resources.
For more information on this or other topics please call me at (306) 946-3237, the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377 or visit our website: http://www.agriculture.gov.sk.ca/
March 10, 2011 18:05
“It’s really cold outside, it’s starting to snow again, and the wind is howling. Is my pasture-kept horse all right?” In all but the most extreme winter weather, the answer is “Yes.” Most horses are well-suited for staying healthy and comfortable in cold weather as long as owners provide them with proper care. Some horses may need additional help staying warm in bitterly cold, wet, windy weather.
The equine hindgut acts as an enormous furnace where the digestion of hay and other fibrous feeds produces a constant supply of heat from microbial fermentation. Owners need to be sure horses have an adequate supply of hay, increasing the amount as the temperature drops.
More heat can be produced by activity, including shivering. Pastured horses can be seen playing, bucking, and running from time to time, and this muscular exertion helps to keep body temperature stable. Short bouts of shivering do the same thing. Horses that shiver continuously in cold, wet weather probably need more hay, possibly a bit more grain, and access to shelter.
The horse’s winter coat is thick and dense. As long as it stays dry, it provides superior insulation. Natural oil tends to let rain and snow slide off, keeping moisture from penetrating deep into the coat. If you see snow building up on your horse’s back or rump, you are looking at proof that his body heat is not escaping through the hair to melt the snow.
When rain or wet snow manages to soak through to the horse’s skin, heat will be lost as the coat’s insulating ability decreases. Under these conditions, horses may need to wear a well-fitting waterproof blanket or have access to a windbreak or covered shelter.
Though horses sometimes stand in deep snow, their lower limbs and hooves almost never suffer damage from the cold. This is because the legs below the knees and hocks are made up mostly of bones and tendons, tissues that don’t freeze easily. In extreme cold temperatures, blood-shunting mechanisms in the hooves alter circulation patterns to preserve body warmth.
Regardless of the adaptations mentioned above, some horses may need additional help staying warm in bitterly cold, wet, windy weather. Very old, very young, sick, or extremely thin horses may need to be blanketed or brought into deep-bedded stalls to keep them from becoming dangerously chilled.
to read further: http://www.equinews.com/article/
February 3, 2011 08:14
Horses are living long lives on acreages, farms and ranches across North America. That reality is reflected in statistics: it’s estimated that geriatric horses (animals more than 20 years old) account for somewhere between seven and 20 per cent of the entire equine population.
Owners and veterinarians are growing more aware that proper management and medical care can expand the lifespan of these horses. Many age-related issues like dental disease or parasite problems can also be prevented through regular veterinary care that’s provided throughout a horse’s life.
Dr. Katharina Lohmann is an internal medicine specialist and an associate professor in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences. Since many of her regular patients at the College’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital are equine senior citizens, Lohmann has gathered together a wealth of health management tips that are specific for geriatric horses.
The following story is an abridged version of a comprehensive article that Lohmann wrote for a national veterinary publication called Large Animal Veterinary Rounds that’s written at the WCVM. Visit www.canadianveterinarians.net/larounds (click on “Archives” for the complete title list) to read the entire article that was published in June 2007. Plus, make sure to read another helpful article called “Diseases Affecting the Geriatric Horse” (published in September 2007).
FOOD AND WATER
A common challenge in caring for older horses is maintaining their weight. Several factors can cause a horse to lose pounds or adequate body condition: underfeeding, protein-calorie malnutrition, nutrient loss, the inability to eat, a lack of appetite, or a physiologic condition or illness.
In many cases, it’s not enough to simply increase the amount of feed: it may take some research to understand the root of the problem. For example, if an older horse is underfed with protein-calorie malnutrition, the animal may have trouble eating the existing feed. In that case, you may need to find an alternate feed that’s easier for the horse to chew or digest. Or, if younger herdmates are preventing the senior horse from getting enough access to food, you may need to rearrange the herd and provide more accessible feed sources to avoid competition.
Q. How much fuel does a senior need?
An older horse’s feeding regimen generally needs little or no adjustments as long as the animal maintains its weight and body condition. The National Research Council’s (NRC) energy recommendations for adult horses equates to about 7.5 to 11 kilograms of hay per day — depending on feed quality and energy content. However, these ration estimates are only a starting point and need adjusting to account for exercising, chronic illness or conditions, or cold weather.
Use body conditioning scoring systems or weight tapes to monitor an older horse’s body condition. While weight loss is a common concern, you also need to be sure that obesity doesn’t become a problem.
Q. What are the best energy sources?
While good quality forage is the ideal maintenance feed source, older animals with dental issues may need alternate feed to maintain body condition. Complete pelleted feeds meet all dietary requirements for senior horses including higher protein and fat content along with balanced mineral supplementation. If a horse doesn’t have a condition like recurrent choke, you can also feed supplemental hay to satisfy your horses’ chewing needs and to prevent boredom or bad vices.
Make the switch from hay to pellets gradually, and adjust feed amounts for the individual horse. As well, consider cost before deciding to make the switch: based on maintenance requirements, a horse will need about 15 to 20 pounds of complete feed per day.
One cheaper alternative: feed energy-packed beet pulp and grains or sweet feeds to senior horses along with their daily hay ration. But these high-carbohydrate diets aren’t recommended if a horse has chronic laminitis or insulin resistance (a common condition associated with pituitary dysfunction).
While supplemental feeds with higher fat content are available in feed stores, you can also add vegetable oils to your animals’ diets. You can feed up to two cups of oil to an average-sized horse in two or more daily feedings with small amounts of beet pulp and grain, but start with smaller volumes and gradually increase to oil amounts over two to three weeks.
Q. What are changes in digestive capacity?
The energy requirements of older horses may not change, but their ability to digest certain nutrients may be reduced. Geriatric horses may prefer feeds with higher protein concentrations with less fibre content, and it may also be advisable to increase mineral supplementation so the horse gets enough phosphorus. But be careful about making these kinds of changes if horses have been diagnosed with renal or liver disease.
Since chronic parasitism can cause decreased feed digestibility in older horses, it’s important to maintain a good deworming program. If a horse has trouble maintaining its body condition, use extruded feeds or add Brewer’s yeast that has the added benefit of providing supplemental B-vitamins.
Q. What are changes in water intake?
Dental pain or decreased thirst perception may cause older horses to reduce their water intake. That can cause low-grade chronic dehydration that leads to reduced exercise tolerance and a predisposition to impaction colic or renal dysfunction. As well, older horses can develop choke if they don’t drink enough water along with alfalfa pellets or other pelleted diets.
How can you increase your horses’ water intake? One option is to soak their hay or roughage, but that’s not a long-term solution since it reduces the feed’s nutrient content. Adding salt to a horse’s diet may increase thirst, but animals must have free access to water and it’s advisable to test for adequate renal function before using this option. Another suggestion: feed mashes or slurries to geriatric horses — a good way to ensure that they ingest some fluids.
If horses aren’t drinking as much because of oral pain, it’s important to correct the dental problem. Heated water sources will also help to reduce the pain of cold water on a sensitive mouth. If an older horse has a chronic condition like laminitis, it’s also important to make it as easy as possible to give the animal ready access to clean water.
Regular exercise can improve a horse’s mobility and slow down the effects of age on cardiopulmonary and musculoskeletal function, but exercise regimens should be tailored to the horse. As well, be aware that older horses may be prone to overheating during strenuous exercise and may become dehydrated. As the horse’s body changes, it may also be necessary to adjust the animal’s regular saddle and tack.
Common causes of reduced athletic capacity in older horses include: • musculoskeletal problems that are caused by the cumulative “wear and tear” of athletic activities versus acute conditions.
• decreased range of joint motion that can lead to further lameness problems if a horse tries to perform strenuous exercise.
• age-related changes in body conformation such as swayback.
Some musculoskeletal conditions in older horses can’t be cured. Instead, they require long-term management and pain control through the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or other systemic medications, supplements (such as glucosamine or hyaluronic acid) or arthrodesis of low-motion joints. Specialized trimming and shoeing can also be helpful in managing musculoskeletal issues.
PREVENTIVE CARE AND VACCINATIONS
Geriatric horses may be more susceptible to infections based on declining immune responses with age, concurrent diseases, general debilitation and poor nutritional status. Researchers have demonstrated that declining immune responses with age primarily affect the adaptive immune responses, specifically antibody formation, while the innate immune system remains relatively stable throughout life.
Here are some recommendations about vaccination practices with older horses:
• routine vaccination against viral diseases like influenza should continue throughout life.
• continue vaccinating against life-threatening conditions like encephalomyelitis, tetanus and rabies. In contrast, some scientists recommend that owners discontinue vaccination against equine herpes virus infection since it may provide little benefit and may favour reactivation of latent infections.
• inactivated vaccines are thought to be safer for geriatric horses compared with attenuated live vaccines.
• optimizing a horse’s overall health status can help to achieve the maximum benefit of vaccination.
Since chronic parasitism is a common problem in geriatric horses, review your deworming strategies — especially in animals with a perceived loss of body weight and/or condition, or with pituitary dysfunction. Monitor parasite load in an older horse through regular examinations of body weight, body condition and fecal egg counts.
Lohmann, Katharina L. “Management and Care of the Geriatric Horse.” Large Animal Veterinary Rounds 7(5), 1-6. Reprinted with permission of Horse Health Lines, publication for the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Equine Health Research Fund. Visit www.ehrf.usask.ca to sign up for a free e-newlsetter.
January 25, 2011 09:14
Shirley and Jack Brodsky have bred and raised registered Paints on their 160-acre farm near Saskatoon, Sask., for nearly 20 years. That experience “in the field” has taught Shirley some valuable lessons about raising and caring for a large herd of multi-aged horses throughout the changing seasons.
In the spring of 2009, Shirley took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about caring for older horses and about her feeding routines when temperatures drop. To read the article about Shirley’s 25-year-old broodmare Double Value (Val) and geriatric horse care, visit the Summer 2009 issue of Horse Health Lines.
Q. What’s your winter feeding regime for your horse herd?
With all of my horses, I try to follow what would be natural for them as closely as possible. I try to make sure the broodmares don’t get terribly fat: I don’t like to over-supplement them. They’re on unlimited hay all winter, and they run on an 80-acre pasture where they have shelter from the wind. They get salt, water, a supplement block every two weeks, and I sometimes feed them a little grain (whole oats) — but not all of the time. That’s about it. It’s not very fancy.
Q. How do you water your horses?
They have access to a heated water bowl all winter, and I feed them far from their water source so they have to come in to drink. That keeps the whole group active, and I think it’s good for digestion and social order. They definitely have a set pattern, and it’s the older mares that will decide when they go for water. They’ll bring in the whole herd for water and after they get their fill, they’ll linger for awhile. But if it’s windy, they’ll head back to the trees for shelter.
Q. What kind of shelter does your herd have during stormy winter weather?
I build a lot of wind shelters with large round straw bales. If the horses can get out of the wind and have lots to eat, they seem to do well — even during storms. I never blanket my horses: I don’t want to affect their winter hair coats. But if a horse’s hair coat isn’t thick enough for the weather, I might have to consider it.
Q. How do you prepare your horses for the winter?
One thing I’ve learned from watching my herd is that all of the horses really want to load up on food in the fall. I think they’re instinctively trying to prepare for the winter by laying down a layer of fat before it gets too cold. I really try to ensure that the horses have all they can eat in the fall, because I hate to see older horses go into the winter on the thin side — they’re always behind and trying to catch up on their weight gain.
Once the pastures start to burn off or if it’s dry, I’ll start hauling in hay. Depending on the weather, I may start feeding hay to the herd as early as August. For the first few bales, the horses eat as if they’ll never be fed again — but then they calm down when they realize that I’ll be bringing more.
Again, I like to make the feeding transition easy so there are no health issues. The fall is often when colic cases occur because once the temperature drops, owners dump out large quantities of hay and their horses eat too much — leading to impaction.
Q. What kind of hay do you feed to your horses?
I feed them a mix of alfalfa, brome grass and a larger percentage of crested wheat. The hay is in large round bales that I unroll on the ground instead of putting them in round feeders. By doing that, I find that we don’t get as many respiratory problems plus we don’t get one or two dominant horses guarding the whole bale from others in the herd. The hay also tends to mix with the snow and take on some additional moisture. Plus, it allows the horses to eat more naturally — closer to how they regularly graze.
The quantity really depends on the type of winter we’re having. The growing horses — the coming yearlings and two years olds — will eat as much as the pregnant mares. If it’s a long, cold winter, the herd will eat three times as much as they do during a mild winter. I always think of it being like stoking a furnace – you just keep throwing it in there.
We try to give the horses the best quality hay that we can. Our hay is custom cut on our land, so our quality depends on the haying season from year to year. Sometimes, the weather doesn’t allow us to cut it when it’s ready and we end up with less than optimum hay. If the hay is marginal, I tend to supplement it with more grain.
But truthfully, I think the horses do better on just plain old grass hay that may be more coarse. If they eat second-cut alfalfa — the rich, “dessert” type of hay — it just seems to go through them without producing much energy.
Q. The winter of 2008 was long and hard on some horses. What did you do to keep your herd healthy?
Toward the end of last winter, I started hauling oats out to the horses. I could tell that the older mares were feeling it because the cold went on so long. When we get in that situation, I do like to supplement them with grain plus beet pulp and some canola or corn oil — those are my favourite basic things. I soak the oats with beet pulp, oil and hot water: that just seems to give them a head start on digestion.
Q. Do you only supplement the older horses’ diet?
Everybody that runs together gets the same feed — young and old. When they have so much hair in the winter, it’s often hard to tell whether they’re losing weight, but I usually gauge it by the weather and their body score. After a few years, you get a sense of your animals’ condition and that’s the joy of having them around so long: you know when they’re doing well and you know when they’re not.
Q. How long do you feed hay to your horses in the spring?
It depends. For instance, since this spring’s (Spring 2009) pasture wasn’t very good because of all the cold, they were getting hay as well. I give them free-choice hay until the pastures were good enough and they left the hay. That way, we never seem to get any serious health issues when horses move from eating hay to fresh grass. We’ve had a little bit of colic but not very much considering the number of horses that we’ve had over the years. It’s worked so far.
Q. What about horses that do too well on feed: do you ever run into problems with horses carrying too much weight?
Not with the older mares, but I do have a few youngsters that are getting heavy. One mare in particular gets too heavy on spring grass, so I need to watch her weight.
If we are feeding grain to the herd, I feed them in a large circle instead of distributing the grain in a straight line or in corners. In this large of a herd, the dominant mare will push one and the whole circle will just continue to rotate. That helps to regulate how much feed each horse gets to eat.
Q. Do you still learn something new about your horses every year?
Oh, for sure. I’ve taken care of a herd for nearly 20 years, but I still feel pretty new at taking care of horses. I’ve worked closely with Dr. Sue Ashburner at the WCVM, and she got a lot of information for me from Dr. Frank Bristol — one of the WCVM’s retired professors who conducted equine behaviour research with large PMU (pregnant mares’ urine) herds. I also have different friends in the business who have been really good at answering my questions.
The one thing I learned is that you can’t be pigheaded about dealing with horses — you have to be flexible and you have to think like a horse. Every year, we get groups of veterinary students and veterinary technology students coming out here to learn more about horse handling and safety. I always tell them, “Drive out of town and just find yourself a big group of horses. Because you can learn so much just by watching a group of horses living together.”
Horses are herd animals that still operate on some really basic principles, and the problems start when we deviate away from that too much. I think we need to remind ourselves that we’re probably best to go back to what’s natural for them.
Reprinted with permission of Horse Health Lines, news publication for the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's Equine Health Research Fund. Sign up for the Horse Health Lines e-newsletter at www.ehrf.usask.ca.